Above the Fray with Yea or Nay
America’s representative democracy is based on the people’s ability to trust elected officials to make decisions on their behalf.
It is not the easy decisions that we elect representatives to make.
Orangetown faced adding a second-in-command to the sewer department, which is a 24×7 waste removal operation for our 14,000 households and hundreds of businesses.
This is not an easy decision by any means.
Considering the town’s budget and realities of our economy, beyond the structure of the sewer department itself, the question was “Should the department have someone assist the department head with the $8 million budget and 40 or so employees?” Yea or nay?
Freshman Councilman Paul Valentine, unlike his four colleagues, chose not to not choose. He abstained, which is to formally decline to vote, to restrain oneself from action.
There are rarely more than two valid reasons to avoid making a choice as an elected official. Either it’s a lack of information or too much direct interest.
There may not be enough information to make a confident decision in either direction, for example, when a consultant’s proposal is suggested the same night of the vote, with the board having had no time to review the plan or credentials.
Perhaps the person doing the voting has a direct personal or professional interest in the outcome, as when I abstained on a vote related to the Rockland Conservatory of Music, for which I was a board member during their move from Spring Valley to downtown Pearl River.
In Mr. Valentine’s case, the reason given does not stand either test of statesmanship. Instead, citing nothing about the position itself, he referenced a personal and political relationship with Guy DeVincenzo, a possible future candidate for the position.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he may not have understood that the vote was not about a candidate but was entirely about the position itself, regardless of who would eventually be selected.
Ignoring that misunderstanding, what is the problem with choosing not to vote if an elected official has a previous relationship with the person to be hired? Because elected officials are trusted to rise above the fray.
Elected officials are elected as trusted representatives precisely because they are connected, not because they have a cold, impersonal relationship with the community.
Statesmen embrace their personal and professional connections in order to serve the public. Statesmen use their knowledge of people and businesses to know who they can trust to do job A, who they can trust to do job B, and who they cannot trust at all.
Politicians use their relationships to gain for themselves or their connections, often at the expense of the public.
Elected officials are chosen to be statesmen, to use their knowledge of the community to contribute to their decisions for the betterment of the public.
When the selection process begins, Mr. Valentine should be happy to share his personal knowledge of Mr. DeVincenzo with the selection committee. If he will do well in the position, say it; if he will not, say that too. In either case, the selection committee will be better able to make a decision that benefits the public if personal knowledge is shared, not shunned.
It requires hard work and soul-searching to put objective distance between the person and the position, between “Citizen” and “Councilman,” especially given how many meetings and decisions, public and private, elected officials are a part of. That hard-won distance and ability to use all of your knowledge to make the best decisions for all is precisely what officials are elected to do.
To hide behind the reality of a connection is to announce that you are not strong enough to put aside your own personal benefit for your public duty. I don’t believe that Mr. Valentine intended to send this message, especially as a man who served our country as a Marine.
To politicians old and new, rise above the fray and make the difficult decisions. If we could do it, we’d do it ourselves.